I have this story from someone who was present at a meeting that took place close to the UK Houses of Parliament. It was organised by a group of British parliamentarians and associates dedicated to renewable and sustainable energy. The purpose was to discuss an addiction – petroleum dependency, and the prospects facing its victims – the human race.

One of the speakers, a petroleum guru, Dr Colin J. Campbell, delivered a scathing critique of published statistics purporting to show that the world’s present oil and gas reserves are sufficient to sustain production at current rates for forty years. Campbell was backed by Chris Skrebowski, the editor of Petroleum Review (a journal of the UK’s Energy Institute). Both speakers derided the figures. The suggestion was that four was nearer than forty to the number of years before the onset of terminal decline. The imminent reality depicted was steep and catastrophic descent to petroleum deprivation. Consumers would be compelled inter alia to adjust mindsets, to cut waste, and to espouse renewable energy and ‘even’ nuclear power.

My informant was moved to wonderment. Could there yet be an alliance between renewables and nuclear, rescuing us from the dire consequences of so much ‘clean’ air lost to carbon burning? Could nuclear-powered electrolysis of water enduringly sustain a hydrogen economy? Could renewables reign, for ever, in the regions and localities endowed for their exploitation? Could there be an energy-conserving Utopia after we had kicked the petroleum habit, saved in the nick of time by nuclear power?

I, too, am moved to wonderment. How exquisite it is that such a vision could be conjured up as a result of deliberations among devotees of renewable and sustainable energy!

Don’t fall for ladder hype

I do not know whether this is still, or ever was, a global phenomenon, but the instructors of my youth loved to set us ladder problems when they tested our understanding of µ, the coefficient of friction. Not unnaturally, when a fat new research report on ladder stability came my way recently, my memory flashed up fragments of the old diagrams of ladders leaning variously inclined against upright surfaces.

But the research report is from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive and is no elementary text for pupils picking up a few bits of Applied Mechanics. It is the product of studies commissioned at Loughborough University by the Executive and is part of a British drive to reduce the death toll exacted by falls from work at different heights.

The major concern of the report is with commercially available devices for the stabilisation of ladders. Its authors observe that there are many competing brands though rather fewer distinct products, and that the sales pitches often lack ‘evidential support’. Much of the promotion appeals to intuition, and ‘tasks that were promoted in some of the promotional material appeared to be in conflict with good ladder practice’.

Indeed, to prospective purchasers, the devices would seem to permit use of ladders in highly dangerous ‘scenarios’, the researchers scold. Properly, the first decision should be whether a ladder is used at all.

Not that the authors deny ladders a place. On the contrary, they provide ladder lore in plenty. I was struck by the data comparing the incidence of ladder accidents in different industries. Ours is not noted specifically but both Construction and Energy are. Generating plants have to be built and they do produce energy, so we must be in the statistics somewhere. And, of the industries named, Construction suffers the most ladder-related falls, and Energy suffers the fewest. Make of that what you will.

Be fair to hydrogen economists

Odd how many purported energy pundits, looking down their noses at proposals for a hydrogen economy, assert that hydrogen is not properly a fuel. That, they say, is because it does not occur separately in nature. Once extracted it is only an energy carrier or an energy storage medium.

When old-style ‘town gas’ supplied light and heat, nobody said that – because coal had to be processed to manufacture it – the gas was less a fuel than was its parent. Like coke, its sister byproduct, it was categorised with coal as a fuel. Incidentally, it was well stuffed with the hydrogen that modern purists would prefer to consume elementally in heat engines or fuel (sic) cells.

Fuelhood should not be denied to hydrogen. Aficionados unite!